The “Four Levels” Of Wargaming: A New Scope On The Hobby

June 30, 2014 by crew

Wargamers would almost universally agree that narrative is one of the most vibrant aspects of our hobby. Only through such context can we answer the all-important questions of why we’re striving to take that bridge, town, castle, or spaceport. While great books and spectacular artwork go a long way in filling this crucial need, zooming out to view the larger “operational-level” picture is another great way gamers can provide this background. By playing (or at least reviewing) games that deal in these bigger pictures, players can get a real understanding of how certain battlefield decisions are made, and why certain scenarios in our familiar tactical games are shaped the way they are. Additionally, this can be done in almost any genre and in almost any medium of gaming (miniatures, computer games, or even hex-and-counter games). Even if a higher-level “general’s game” doesn’t appeal to you, understanding the basics of how these systems work can be a great help in building your own narratives for traditional tactical games.

Definitions may vary, but wargames generally come in four basic levels. These could be thought of as tactical, “command” tactical, operational, and strategic. Players may recognize other categories, and of course there’s always some overlap in a given game system.


The smallest and probably most familiar of these levels is “tactical” or “pure tactical.” Here, playing pieces represent individual combatants or vehicles, often with highly-granular rules for movement, firing ranges, and true line-of-sight. These games are fast, sharp, visceral, and deadly, and if this kind of gaming interests you, there’s a great site called “Beasts of War” you may want to check out.

The next step up is sometimes called “scaled tactical” or “command tactical,” which simply represents a given engagement at a higher level of command. The map still represents a single battlefield (albeit a much larger one), and the game still represents a single engagement fought on a single day. But each playing piece now typically represents a platoon of 40-50 men in modern or sci-fi games. In black powder, medieval, fantasy, or ancients games, this number can go as high as companies of 200, cohorts of 600, or battalions of 1000. With 40 or 50 pieces per side, players now take the role of majors, colonels, or even junior-level generals, commanding thousands of men in combat.

Warren At Salute

This is the solution usually employed by history-heavy World War II players, American Civil War players, or Napoleonic players. Can you imagine Warren painting 200,000 minis for his game of Waterloo? Engagements like Gaugemela, Cannae, Agincourt, Martson Moor, or Gettysburg just wouldn’t be possible in a “pure tactical” model. Many of these command tactical games are still played with miniatures and terrain, such as GHQ’s Microarmor series, Command Decision, and even TSR’s old fantasy-based game Battlesystem. Other command tactical games, however, step away from miniatures in favor of more easily-managed mediums of gameplay such as computers or counters. Some players might consider such “command tactical” games just a subdivision of the broader tactical genre, but remember that when you’re dealing with units instead of individuals, the basic math driving all the game’s systems have to undergo fundamental changes.

PanzerBlitz Winter Board

The highest level, of course, is “strategic” or “grand strategic.” Here, players take command of entire nations, coalitions, or empires. The map could represent the whole world, with each turn representing three months to ten years. In Decision Games’ Struggle for Galactic Empire, the map represents the whole Milky Way galaxy. Although still wargames, they also deal heavily in politics, diplomacy, economics, culture, and sometimes even anthropology. The simplest example is the classic Risk, although this level of gaming is better represented by games like Avalon Hill’s Rise and Decline of the Third Reich and Decision Games’ Totaler Krieg.

Third Reich Map

Between the tactical and strategic games, however, is the often-overlooked operational-level game. Here, at least in my experience, is where the real “dragon’s horde” of narrative gold can be found.

Simply put, an operational-level game conducts a campaign over a period of days, weeks, or sometimes months. The map could include the five invasion beaches of Normandy (as in Avalon Hill’s Overlord), a planet or star system in a sci-fi game, or the Holy Land in a game about the Crusades. Turns usually represent timescales ranging from twelve hours to a week, depending on the era. A game piece might represent a battalion (800-1,000 men) to a division (15,000-20,000 men), an air squadron, a naval task force, or a single capital ship (battleship or aircraft carrier). Crucially, they might also represent a supply column, logistics base, or tanker convoy.

Operational-level games differ from strategic games in that they are small enough to remain strictly military. Although there is a large degree of resource management, there are no “pure” economics, diplomatic factors, or shifting alliances. They also differ from even the biggest command tactical game, however, in that they never represent any single engagement. When an engagement begins, the combat strengths and characteristics of the units involved are usually compared to arrive at a ratio, various factors are considered, dice are rolled, and the results applied to both attacker and defender. There could be three, four, or five engagements resolved in a single operational turn, with dozens or even a hundred battles resolved before the complete game is finished.

Red Storm Rising

Strictly speaking, operational-level games aren’t “campaign games” like the “Alternate Bulgaria” Bolt Action series we recently saw featured on The Weekender. Campaign games are usually a series of tactical games connected by an overarching narrative. True, a campaign game might have some operational elements built into it, like how far certain units can move on the larger map. But an operational-level game puts much more detail into the higher-level mechanics of military operations like logistics, shipping, airlift capability, and coordination with naval units.

Because operational-level games require significant resource management, limited intelligence (hidden movement), and heavy number-crunching, many recent releases have been computer games. Matrix Games’ Operational Art of War is a great example. Others stick to the conventional game boards, like the series of games regularly published in Strategy & Tactics magazine by designers like Ty Bomba and Joseph Miranda. Larger games include Diffraction Entertainment’s Blitzkrieg series, monster games which sometimes come with thousands of counters and 6-foot by 8-foot maps.

ST Games

Clearly, there’s a much larger world of wargaming beyond the firefights and skirmishes in which we embroil our miniatures. Maybe it’s time to “get promoted” in your army, and see if you have what it takes at the general’s table.

James Johnson

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"...players take command of entire nations, coalitions, or empires. The map could represent the whole world, with each turn representing three months to ten years"

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"Clearly, there’s a much larger world of wargaming beyond the firefights and skirmishes in which we embroil our miniatures..."